Learning to Survive in Education With a Posse

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2004; 12:00 AM

In the fall of 2002, Laura Torres was a senior at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. Like most students at that overcrowded and almost entirely Hispanic school, her family did not have enough money to send her away to the university. Her grades and test scores were good, but she did not live in Beverly Hills. People in her neighborhood rarely even thought about going to one of those schools near the top of the U.S. News and World Report list.

But the college counselor at Roosevelt, knowing how energetic and determined Torres was, passed her name on to something called the Posse Foundation. As a result, Torres is completing her freshman year at one of the most demanding, selective and expensive four-year institutions in the country, Grinnell College in Iowa, and doing just fine.

Such stories are relatively common in American education. Well-known colleges frequently take chances on low-income students who are the first in their families to try to get a bachelor's degree. But there is something very different about the Posse Foundation, and Torres' life at Grinnell.

Unlike most students who move from cracked concrete inner city high schools to the broad green lawns of the best private colleges, Torres has some friends with her to face this new world. She arrived last fall as part of a group of 12 Los Angeles students. They lacked either the sparkling grades and test scores or the big family incomes -- and in many cases they lacked both -- that help get you into a place like Grinnell. But the dozen California teenagers had been meeting every week since the previous January as a group -- the term "posse" is teenage patois for one's circle of friends -- to learn how to survive TOGETHER in what they all viewed as alien territory.

There are now 534 Posse students at 19 American campuses. Their predecessors have a college graduation rate more than twice the national average for such students, suggesting that this may be a solution for what is one of the saddest, and least reported, stories in education today.

As a nation we are united, no matter where we live or work or how we grew up, by the notion that our children should go to college. Some people think this emphasis is misplaced, but there is no denying its power. Many parents even think future plumbers and store clerks should have four-year degrees, just to keep their options open. Sappy TV and film dramas about teens in trouble often use a college admission letter as the happy ending.

And yet those movies rarely show what so often happens to those excited, college-bound kids. They discover higher education is too hard or too expensive or just too annoying. They drop out and make do with whatever jobs are available for people without a degree. Only 55 percent of Americans who start college manage to get degrees in six years, and for students with backgrounds like Torres' the number is much lower -- only 41 percent of Hispanic or African American students complete college.

The reasons are many. Young people who have grown up in one place get lonely for home. They struggle with courses that are more difficult than what they had in high school. They find it hard to adjust to their dorm mates' suburban manners and tastes. They worry about keeping their scholarships and making enough money in campus and summer jobs to pay their expenses.

The founder and president of the Posse Foundation, Deborah Bial, was a 23-year-old English literature graduate of Brandeis University when she stumbled upon this problem in 1989. She was helping with a youth program in New York City and met several promising inner city young people who had left college short of graduation. When she asked them why, one answer intrigued her: "I'd never have dropped out if I had my posse."

That moment of inspiration, and Bial's skill at persuading big foundations and other donors to finance her solution to this waste of talent, is the reason Torres is at Grinnell. She and the other 11 Posse members in Grinnell's class of 2007 were selected after a series of fall workshops and interviews that looked for leadership potential, particularly speaking and other communication skills, among students whose academic records or family incomes would have made that bucolic campus unattainable.

"When I arrived, the transition was difficult," Torres said. "There are so many things I miss from home. It can still be difficult at times, but it feels good to know that I have at least 11 other people I can go to."

Mickey Munley, Grinnell's vice president for communications and events, describes the bond that unites Grinnell Posse 1: "They have friends who get it, who get LA and now get living in a corn field."

There are 19 colleges accepting annual groups of 10 to 12 students each under the Posse program from four metropolitan areas, New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. The Washington area will start a Posse program this fall with a $1 million grant from the Sallie Mae Fund. The participating schools, besides Grinnell, are Babson, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, Carleton, Claremont McKenna, Colby, Denison, DePauw, Dickinson, Hamilton, Lafayette, Middlebury, Trinity, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vanderbilt and Wheaton.

Some Posse members still drop out, although the program's overall six-year graduation rate is above 90 percent, comparable to that achieved at overwhelming middle class Ivy League campuses. It is also expensive for the colleges, who must pay for full tuition scholarships as well as an annual fee to Posse. The organization is seeking contributions for the $4.1 million it is spending this year on recruitment, the eight months of preparatory Posse meetings, the college support program and other services for the students.

One obvious reason for its success is the common sense of its approach. Even parents who can afford to send their children to college wish they could arrange the kind of preparation that Posse members get -- weekly two-hour meetings on the academic, social, political, sexual, recreational and other challenges of college life beginning right after they are accepted by their colleges in December. (Every potential Posse member applies to a participating college under an early decision system and promises to attend that college if admitted.)

The special attention they get at college -- weekly group meetings plus individual meetings with a campus mentor every two weeks -- may be even more important that the preparatory sessions. Howard Burkle, the Grinnell professor emeritus of philosophy and religion who takes care of Torres and her Posse, said, "I function as personal adviser and back-up academic adviser to whoever needs help. I proofread papers, explain Kant's ethics, give advice on how to find special tutorial help among the vast array of college services."

Adam Brumer, another member of Grinnell Posse 1, notes that he does not live with Posse people, but knows how to find them. "Any time I have ever needed someone to confide in, I've always gone to my Posse first," he said. There are internships and career counseling geared to the Posse, and a newsletter that lets everyone know that "Claire Jimenez, Colby Posse 1, has become a master hat maker, using her crocheting skills to make many a warm cap for students up in Maine" or that "you don't want to start an argument with Middlebury Posse 4's Michael Cooper, since he joined the Middlebury Debate Team."

Torres still remembers getting her Grinnell acceptance letter in December 2002. "The emotion was so great I almost did not believe it actually happened. It felt surreal. I did not even tell my mom for a few days."

She still misses East L.A. sometimes. College work is hard and "our weekly meetings can be a drag," she said. But she understands the system now and thinks those New York teens who told Bial what they needed 15 years ago had it exactly right. "The Posse program is great," Torres said, "because it offers so much support."

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